Thaw In Japan-South Korea Relations? – Analysis


June 22, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of a treaty between Japan and South Korea to establish formal diplomatic relations. Seen from the perspective of reconciliation, inking the treaty between the two countries in 1965 was a landmark development, especially because the Korean peninsula had remained under the Japanese colonial rule for 35 years between 1910 and 1945. Though Japan’s defeat in World War II, subsequent rise of communism in China and followed by the three long years of Korean War (1950-53) brought about a dramatic turnaround in the security environment in the Northeast Asia, the legacy of the colonial rule continues to haunt Japan-South Korea relations. Political leaders in both the countries continue to grapple with this thorny issue of political reconciliation that has frequently threatened to undo the success that both have achieved in the economic realm. That unfortunate chapter with its accompanying ‘horrifying’ incidents do not go away from the memory of the Korea people.


Indeed, inter-state relations in Northeast Asia are more complicated than that they appear on the surface. Japan, China and South Korea, the three states in the region, have developed strong economic interdependence to the world’s envy. Yet, the shadow of the past continues to haunt bilateral ties. Both China and South Korea are adversaries to Japan. Both have irritants, some recent after the War and some pre-dates World War II. These have shaped the psyche of the people and no economic mutual benefits have helped assuage the feeling of hurt and suspicion. The 35-years of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, the atrocities committed during the War, the Comfort Women issue – the euphemism for sex slaves – during the War years and the abduction issue with North Korea after the War continues to haunt policy makers and have engaged analysts of Northeast Asian issues to recommend possible solutions. Similarly, China does not forget the Japanese atrocities, especially the Nanking massacre of December 1937, also known as the Rape of Nanking as well as the defeat it faced in 1894-95 at the hands of Japan. The Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanking on 13 December 1937 and believed to have massacred an estimated 40,000 to over 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants for over six weeks, the darkest phase in Sino-Japanese relations. During the post-War years, territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea over Takeshima/Dokdo islands and between Japan and China over Senkaku/Diaoyu Island chains continue to bedevil bilateral ties. More recently, the rise of China and the perceived threat it poses to the region is another dimension to the security scenario of the region.

Notwithstanding such complexities in relations, Japan-South Korea economic ties have grown over the years. Yet both are not seen as friends. This did not deter, however, the foreign ministers of both countries to hold a rare meeting on 21 June on the eve of the 50th anniversary since the normalization of relations between the two countries despite Japan’s colonization and World War II conquest. Interestingly, both are important US allies in Asia and key to President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia policy. It was unclear however, how much was achieved in building trust. Indeed, Japan’s diplomacy towards South Korea, as observed by Professor Junya Nishino of Keio University, “has turned harsher against the backdrop of public sentiment” and that the situation is “grave”.1 This essay shall examine some of the recent developments in Japan-South Korea bilateral ties and in doing so, it shall project the past to understand the present and project the present to understand the future.

Past haunts

Both Japan and South Korea are now likened to twins. Both have strong civilizational histories and both are proud about this. Both rose from the ashes of World War II but developed remarkably through sustained efforts but in different tumultuous circumstances. While Japan was guided by the US through the Occupation forces in the art of governance with a constitution to guide and a democratic structure, South Korea was plunged into a three-year long patricidal war with its sibling in the North and then had a spell of dictatorship before democracy was restored in the 1990s. In the post-World War II era, both have traversed through steady but strenuous efforts and achieved perceptible successes in economic development.

In this process of economic revitalisation, both are still coping with concurrent problems as their competitive industries overlap considerably. Both are facing many new and similar challenges, including an aging population amid low birth rates, a shrinking population and environmental problems. The problem is more pronounced in Japan now but South Korea is unlikely to escape from this problem either as symptoms are already visible.

These modern-day challenges do not obliterate the past, however. Both continue to remain at loggerheads over certain long-standing issues and continue to take deplorable political and diplomatic actions regarding the bilateral relations. Unfortunately, both have allowed the history issue to remain as sore points in their relationship, overlooking the fact that greater cooperation in other issues shall accrue greater benefits to both.

How did all these happen and what is the background of Japan-South Korea hostility that continues to the present day? How could historical wrongs done by Japan as alleged by South Korea be corrected by present day actions? Why no summit meeting has been possible between Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of Japan and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea though both have been in office for a reasonable period of time? Is mutual trust so difficult to be reached over issues that happened many decades ago, which has no direct relevance to the present day? Why cannot the political leaders in both the countries engage in a dialogue and agree to bury the past and look to the future with an open mind? How is the present generation to be held responsible/accountable to the deeds of their ancestors, whatever that they may be? These are some of the troubling questions that this essay would look for answers in the context of the current narrative and project the present to understand the future.

In the context of projecting the past to understand the present, it seems relevant to mention the movie, a documentary about Korean goodwill missions to Japan during the feudal Edo period (1603-1868), known as “Chosen tsushishi” in Japan, made by the late Sin Ki-su, that his daughter Shin Rika, a third-generation ethnic Korean resident in Japan, is taking around both Japan and South Korea with a copy to make the people understand why the current strained political relations between Japan and South Korea are not in tune with the present day reality. With a view to unearth the goodwill of the past to beautify the present, Shin has been holding screenings of the film in various parts of both Japan and South Korea. Various people and organisations, such as universities, international exchange groups and South Korean legislators have welcomed this initiative with the hope to see greener days ahead in their bilateral ties.
In an age when the European powers were in a colonising spree far away from their territorial boundaries, Japan in Asia had emerged as a colonial power after defeating two major Asian powers, China in 1894-5 and Russia in 1904-5 wars. There are different theories explaining Japanese expansionist policy. One theory endorses the view that Japan’s external adventurism was to repel the Western powers from exploiting Asia and plundering its wealth that it thought was meant for the Asians alone, but the means it adopted to achieve its objectives were difficult to appreciate. In doing so, Japan itself did what the Western powers were doing to the people in countries they had conquered and colonised.

There is a long history to Japan’s incursions into the Korean peninsula. It started with the restoration of diplomatic relations with the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, which was devastated by invasions by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who invited a Korean envoy to visit Japan. During the Edo period, twelve large Korean missions when they came to Japan were welcomed enthusiastically, just like stars from South Korea during the recent “Hanryu” Korean boom.2 Since then, the requests for screenings of the film made by Sin Ki-su have surged in Japan. One needs to appreciate the significance of this film in view of the present troubled period in the bilateral relationship.

In order to have good relations, mutual understanding between the two provides the basic foundation for durable relationship. For some time, relations between the two countries were stable and bilateral diplomacy seemed smooth. In a recent editorial, the Asahi Shimbun mentioned the work of Amenomori Honshu (1668-1755), a prominent Confucian scholar, who wrote a book about diplomacy with Korea titled “Korin Teisei” at the age of 61. In this book, he prescribed some dos and don’ts of how to manage diplomacy with Korea.3 He stressed the importance of “knowing Korea’s customs, history, culture and past relations with Japan”, something akin to cultural diplomacy that modern nation states are promoting as a tool of diplomatic public policy. Similarly, from the Korean side, Lee Ye, a diplomat active in the 15th century, played a similar role for improving bilateral ties. Lee visited Japan more than 40 times, mentions the editorial, and helped build friendly relations between the two countries. He helped the release of 667 Koreans taken to Japan by Japanese pirates.

Was there anything common between the diplomats of the two countries at that time, which is why bilateral issues were handled with maturity? From available accounts, that was precisely the case. In contrast, the current political leaders in both countries have been “showing a deplorable lack of flexibility in bilateral diplomacy”.4 For example, Japan’s “Diplomatic Bluebook” of 2015 did not mention the phrase “sharing basic values” in its descriptions about South Korea. Such measure does not help in promoting good-neighbourly policy.

South Korea is equally at fault. South Korea’s judicial and criminal justice authorities have made a series of questionable decisions concerning the case of theft of Buddhist statutes by a group of South Korean thieves from temples on Tsushima Island, Nagasaki Prefecture. A South Korean court ruled against returning the statutes to Japan. Also, in 2014 a South Korean court indicted a Sankei journalist charged with defamation over his article about South Korean President Park Geun-hye.5 The hard-line policies pursued by Prime Minister Abe and President Park are not helping their countries and are only impacting negatively. This needs a rethink. Bilateral relationships need to be cast on the premise of shared values, else it would do more harm than good to bilateral ties. Both countries are expected to “compete over the maturity of their democracies instead of immaturely criticising each other”.

If bilateral acrimony is allowed to shape bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea even 50 years after the establishment of diplomatic ties, why the relations were established in the first place? The onus lies in both the countries to answer to this tricky question. If bilateral ties are examined now, true reconciliation is still a far cry. At the height of the Cold War, it was the US that was instrumental to broker peace and pressured both into shaking hands. Both being important allies in Northeast Asia, mediating a detente was necessary for the US to promote its Asian policy as a counter to the then USSR. Therefore, the US intervention becomes inescapable whenever its two key Asian allies are in loggerheads with each other.

Japan-South Korea-US trilateral relationships, therefore, have not undergone much change and the US continues to maintain the role of peace-broker between Japan and South Korea. There is however a change in the causality; earlier it was the USSR, now it is the rising China, shaping the US’ Asian policy. Whenever Japan and South Korea have bilateral issues like the territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan or the so-called Comfort Women, who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during the War, both look to Washington to win support for their respective positions by making their own cases to the US policymakers.

Seen at the bilateral level, the basic structure in their bilateral ties has remained fundamentally unchanged even after half a century of having diplomatic relations. Mutual acrimony and accusations continue to bedevil bilateral ties. Japan has accused the present South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se of practising “tale-tell diplomacy” by criticising Japan in third countries. He stayed away from Japan for more than two years since taking office. Sarcastically, the Asahi Shimbun described this as “extraordinary”6, something unusual in neighbourhood diplomacy.

In a damage-control exercise of sort, Yun travelled to Tokyo on 21 June 2015 “to exchange opinions about various issues between Japan and South Korea”. Yun attended a ceremony in Tokyo to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization between the two countries. A similar anniversary event was held in Seoul and it was attended by former Japanese Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, currently head of a group of Japanese lawmakers to promote friendly ties between the two Asian neighbors.7 But a summit between Abe and Park still remains eluded and as a result the perceptions of Japanese and South Korean people towards each other remains the same, which is why the argument that political leadership in both countries ought to rise above narrow difference in the interest of future relations. Indeed the celebration of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relationship was a good opportunity for both Japan and South Korea to mend ties. Unfortunately, that does not seem to have happened. It is indeed a challenge to the leadership in both the countries to rise above the narrow-minded nationalism that has crippled politics and diplomacy and show far-sightedness in the interests of both bilaterally and for the region.

Yun met his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida and discussed a range of topics, including the Comfort Women issue but no specific accord was reached, expect that both agreed to continue consultations. The recent issue of gaining UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage status by Japan for Meiji era (1868-1912) industrial revolution sites, over which South Korea raised objection also figured in the discussion.8 It was expected to get South Korea’s support in exchange for Japanese support to South Korea’s efforts to have historic sites from the ancient kingdom of Baekje on the same UNESCO World Heritage list. Indeed, politicization of World Heritage registration could have been avoided and “the matter (could have been) placed in the hands of experts on the cultural values of the properties in question”.9

According to Japan, as per the 1965 agreement Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation, Japan pledged to provide South Korea with economic assistance worth $500 million in grant and government loans. The accord also stated that all compensation issues were settled “completely and finally”. In subsequent years, Japanese investments and technological transfers to South Korea contributed to South Korea’s dramatic economic growth, referred to as the “miracle of Hangan”. The subsequent landmark development between the two countries was the 1998 Joint Declaration by then South Korean President kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, in which Japan offered a forthright apology for “damage and suffering” inflicted on the Korean people during the colonial rule.10 That time, Kim expressed desire for developing “future-oriented relationship” between the two countries. The Obuchi-Kim talks set the stage for entry of Japanese popular culture into South Korea and the emergence in Japan of a Korean pop culture boom.
As South Korean economy began to rise, it soon emerged as the seventh in the list of the world’s biggest exporting countries. It also became a member of the Group of 20 major economies. Japan’s footprint in South Korea’s economic growth is a recognized fact. The development of the Pohang integrated steel mill, for which engineers, including those of Nippon Steel Corp. cooperated in the construction of the facilities, and the development of a subway system in Seoul are good examples of Japan’s contribution to South Korea’s economic prosperity. Simultaneously, Japan-South Korea bilateral trade and investment cooperation led to the deepening of a strong interdependent relationship. Everything looked well in the relationship between the two countries. Unfortunately, school textbooks and local mass media in South Korea seldom refer to such assistance. This has contributed to the fanning of anti-Japan sentiment among South Koreans.

What then went wrong suddenly that started souring bilateral ties? In August 2012, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a trip to Takeshima/Dokdo islands, which irked Japan. These groups of islands are administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan, and remains an unresolved emotive issue in both the countries. Japan says South Korea’s occupation of the islands is unlawful and that the issue must be dealt with under international law and therefore needs to be settled at the International Court of Justice.

Adding fuel to the fire, Lee demanded an apology by the Japanese Emperor, which further soured bilateral ties. President Park Geun-hye, who took office in February 2013, continued Lee’s hard-line policy and has made the holding of a summit meeting with Prime Minister Abe contingent on resolving the Comfort Women issue, and has stubbornly refused to meet with Abe.

On 28 April 2015, Abe had a summit meeting with President Obama at the White House. Abe delivered a speech in the US Congress on 29 April 2015,11during which he mentioned that Japan-South Korea relationship is very important and both the countries are “discussing various issues”. Obama welcomed such efforts. With support from Obama, Abe directed Shotaro Yachi, chief of the Japanese National Security Council’s secretariat, to negotiate with presidential chief of staff Lee Byung Kee, close aide to President Park. This has not helped to break the ice.

Comfort Women Issue

The strengthening of Japan-US ties made President Park feel unease, fearing that her country will be left behind. Her unease was further reinforced when visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry directly asked her to improve relations with Japan.12 After Abe’s address to Congress, Park criticized him for “failing to take advantage of the opportunity to make a sincere apology … and strengthen trust with neighboring countries.” The core issue was how to surmount the history problems, including the Comfort Women issue.

Japan contends that the compensation issue involving Comfort Women has been legally resolved under the 1965 agreement. The Japanese government established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 to pay “atonement money” to 61 former South Korean Comfort Women, accompanied by letters of apology by the then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.13 Japan urges President Park not to ignore these facts and believes that unless she change her stance of pressuring the Abe administration, it will be difficult for the Japanese side to compromise. Park seems to have difficulty in overlooking her domestic constituency where her populist policy has only fanned anti-Japan nationalism, an offshoot of empowerment of people in a democratic set up. A private organization is in the forefront in building public opinion, albeit with support from the government.14

This organization erected a statute of a girl symbolizing Comfort Women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul which added to the diplomatic fire. Japan contents that such an act contravenes the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates that a host country must protect a diplomatic mission and therefore urges Seoul to take appropriate action to remove the statute if diplomatic relations have to be repaired. But President Park wants Japan to have a “correct perception of history”. Such a stance by the President only fans anti-Japan opinion in South Korea. The situation has become vicious that an early resolution looks difficult. While not discounting differences on territorial issues or perception on history, in diplomacy some flexibility in stances on such critical issues is expected to minimize the negative impact of such differences. Unfortunately Japan-South Korea relations are not moving in that direction. Lack of mutual trust and suspicions remain as core in their bilateral ties. This is unfortunate.

Japan’s frustration increase as the issue has got more complicated with South Korea’s judiciary having given judgment that shakes the foundation of the 1965 agreement on property claims. The South Korean Constitutional Court has asked the government to negotiate with Japan over the Comfort Women issue. Another court ruling that gives discomfort to Japan is ordering Japanese companies to pay damages to South Koreans who were forced to work in wartimes.

US Role in Japan-South Korea reconciliation

The US is clearly unhappy at this turn of events among its two Northeast Asian allies, whose cooperation is indispensable for Obama’s rebalance to Asia strategy. The challenge coming from China and North Korea’s nuclear program are other causes of worry for the US. It is in the US interest that relationship between its two important allies must be repaired and should not be allowed to deteriorate further.

Besides coping with the China rise, cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea is indispensable if the issue of putting pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear development is taken to its logical conclusion. President Obama is worried that President Park has started attaching more importance to strengthening ties with China. It seems that South Korea and China have formed a united front against Japan over historical issues. It is significant that Chinese President Xi Jinping preferred to visit Seoul and bypassed Pyongyang to send a clear message about the increasing bonhomie between Beijing and Seoul. Moreover, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un still does not have an invitation to visit Beijing, a rather rare occurrence as Beijing-Pyongyang relationship was once described as close like lips and teeth.

It would be in the interests of both Japan and South Korea that both should develop a common goal to restraint China whose aim is to change the regional status quo, if necessary by force. This is demonstrable by China’s extensive maritime advance, which is causing considerable disquiet in the region. It is a bit puzzling why both Japan and South Korea do not realize the imperatives of having a common strategic goal that could contribute to peace and prosperity of the East Asian region. It may be recalled that at the time of the conclusion of the treaty normalizing relations with Japan, then President Park Chung-hee had said in the National Assembly that South Korea must not take wrong path in the present and future by adhering too much and solely to the past. Japan expects his daughter, the current President, would keep in mind what her father had observed 50 years ago.

Opinion Poll

Public opinion surveys in both the countries confirm to the hostility towards each other. In March and April 2013, a Japanese non-profit organization Genron NPO and South Korea’s think tank East Asia Institute (EAI) released the results of their first joint opinion poll, which showed the perception of South Korea’s dislike toward Japan was intense. The poll results showed that 76.6 percent of the South Korean respondents said they held “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” views of Japan. A combined 37.3 percent of the Japanese respondents had the same negative impressions of South Korea. A total of 1,000 valid responses were obtained from each country. As many as 45.5 percent of the Japanese respondents said they felt more affinity toward South Korea than toward China. Only 5.9 percent of them said they felt closer to China. In contrast, 36.2 percent of the South Koreans said they felt more affinity toward China than toward Japan, compared with 13.5 percent who felt closer to Japan.

The first joint survey found that the major reasons behind the negative feelings are the territorial dispute over a couple of rocky islets Takeshima/Dokdo and differences in historical perception. The basic reasons behind the unfavorable cross-border images are a lack of basic understanding of each other due to inadequate direct communications between regular people and the dependence of the citizenry on their respective domestic media for information about the other country.15 Kazuo Ogura, a former Japanese ambassador to South Korea observes: ““The problem is that even though cultural interaction between the citizens (of both countries) has deepened (in the past years), people get riled up by political issues. . . . We need to nurture more citizen-level talks”.16 Bilateral ties were strained in April 2013 after more than 100 Diet members, including three Cabinet ministers, visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on April 23 during its spring festival. The South Korean foreign minister canceled a trip to Japan in protest.

A survey was conducted in Japan by Public Opinion Research Institute Corporation and South Korea’s Hankook Research Co. Ltd from 31 May to June 2014, through the door-to-door home visit method targeting the men and women over the age of 18 (excluding high school students). On the other hand, the opinion poll in South Korea was conducted from 10 to 26 June, through a method of face-to-face interviewing targeting men and women over the age of 19. The objective of the survey was to continue monitoring the state of mutual understanding and awareness of the Japanese and South Korean public, in order to contribute closing the gap in the awareness between the two societies, promoting mutual understanding.

At the same time, a second joint opinion poll was conducted by again Genron NPO and EAI between early June to the end of June 2014 targeting intellectuals in Japan and South Korea. In Japan questionnaires were sent to approximately 6,000 domestic intellectuals who had previously participated in discussion and surveys organized by the Genron NPO. Answers were obtained from 633 intellectuals. In South Korea, questionnaires composed of 25 questions which were excerpted from the questionnaires were sent to approximately 5,000 intellectuals by email. Answers were obtained from 424 intellectuals. The respondents in both the countries were considered to represent a stratum of well-rounded intellectuals in Japan and South Korea. The survey targeting intellectuals was designed to complement the results from the general public opinion poll.17

The survey revealed that while the impression of South Korea among Japanese public was further aggravated, impression of Japan among the South Korean public had slightly improved but 70 % still had negative impression of Japan. “The percentage of Japanese respondents who answered that they had a “favorable” impression or “relatively favorable” impression of South Korea remained at 20.5%, while the percentage of those who had an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impression reached 54.4%, which was 17.1 points higher than the last year’s result (37.3%). On the other hand, the percentage of South Korean respondents had a “good” or “relatively good” impression of Japan was 17.2%, which had improved in comparison with last year’s result. The percentage of those who answered that they had an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impression was 70.9, which was 5.7 points higher than last year’s result, yet around 70% of them had a negative impression on Japan.”18

The survey revealed that historical and territorial disputes had negative impact on mutual impressions. Over 70 % of the respondents in Korea answered “inadequate repentance over the history of invasion” and “continuing conflicts on the issue of Dokdo” as the reasons why they have unfavorable impressions of Japan. In comparison, 73.9% of Japanese raised concern with “criticism of Japan over historical issues”. This was higher than the previous year percentage at 55.8%. Such negative traits did not take away the role of South Korean TV drama and music for creating good impressions in Japan. There was greater appreciation of the kindness of the Japanese people and the high living standard in South Korea.

That both countries are democracies was not a factor linking to positive impressions as the percentage of people attributing to this was less than 20%.

The survey revealed that while the Japanese public, especially the youth, perceives South Korea through its culture and recent events, the South Korean public perceives Japan through territorial dispute and history. Majority of South Korean respondents answered that the current system in Japan is “militarism”, while most Japanese respondents answered that the current system in South Korea is “ethnicism”. Also, while the Japanese public views South Korean as “stubborn”, and yet “diligent”, “selfish”, “belligerent” and “untrustworthy”, the South Korean public views the Japanese public as “hardworking”, “kind”, “creative”, yet “selfish”. Japan-South Korea relations are viewed as “important” by more than 60% of Japanese and 73% of South Korean despite the tense situation between the two countries.19

Notwithstanding mutual acrimony, travel of people to each other country is not hindered. According to Korea Tourism Organization, 3.5 million Japanese accounted for the largest group of foreign tourists to visit South Korea in 2012, compared with 3.2 million Chinese. But given the growing tensions between Japan and South Korea, particularly on two issues – the Comfort Women and territorial (Takeshima/Dokdo) – the Chinese outnumbered the Japanese in 2013. Despite the Chinese support to North Korea, historically South Korea feels closer towards China than Japan. This was pronounced clearly in President Park’s policy when she welcomed Chinese president Xi Jinping in June 2014.20 No wonder Chinese has replaced Japanese as a leading foreign language of use almost everywhere in Seoul, including on street signboards and in the calls of shop employees. Chinese are proving to be better customers than the Japanese too. KTO sources reveal that many Chinese customers buy up an entire shelf of designer products at duty-free shops and that pleases South Korea.

However, though the survey results do reflect the power gap between China and Japan, some experts doubt that South Koreans are really turning their backs on Japan because their common ‘enemy’ is now China. Yet, the trend may be truly changing as an opinion survey in 2009 by the University of Shizuoka and a South Korean research agency by soliciting the opinions of 600 residents in Seoul had revealed that 30.2 percent of the respondents felt affinity toward China—but 47.2 percent felt close to Japan. That is quite different from the Genron-EAI survey results, although the figures cannot be compared directly.

In 2009, relations between Japan, China and South Korea were relatively stable but Tokyo-Seoul relations turned rocky in August 2012, when South Korea’s President, Lee Myung-bak, landed on one of the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo islets in the Sea of Japan. In February 2013, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a Cabinet Office parliamentary secretary for the first time to a “Takeshima Day” ceremony hosted by a prefectural government. This angered South Korea. Therefore, the Genron-EAI survey results might have been influenced by the political situation.

Many South Koreans also show no signs of animosity toward Japan. There are many youngsters in South Korea who are enthusiasts of Japanese pop music and are not bothered about the past. For them, culture and politics are different. It may be noted that only 3.8 percent of Japanese and 0.9 percent of South Koreans told the Genron-EAI opinion poll that they formed their opinions on bilateral relations through information obtained through direct conversations with people from the other country. Only about 20 percent of the respondents in each nation said they had ever visited the other country. The prevailing mistrusts, however, did not prevent both the countries to co-host soccer World Cup in 2002. But things seem to have nosedived by 2015, with both countries toughening their stances.

Role of Nationalism

There is some truth that nationalism is being exploited by the state through education and that is poisoning the grassroots of Japan-Korea relations. The older generations and people with business interests in Japan and the Japanese will maintain strong ties and vice versa. The liberal school in International Relations states that economic ties will supersede political squabbles and forge peace and stability (although history disagrees with them). For realists, however, it would be presumptuous to rationalise that everything will go right or wrong on the basis of poor political relations or good economic relations in a region like Northeast Asia.

The truism is that children in South Korea are educated to hate Japan, and by the time they become teenagers, their opinions are reversed due to exposure to modern Japanese culture. The largest numbers of exchange students in Japan (and foreigners in general in Japan) are primarily Chinese, followed by Koreans, and both of these countries advocate public discourses that are fervently anti-Japanese. The young generation grown in a different environment is not that naïve to believe that the shadow of the past is going to determine the future of inter-state relations in a modern era. They would believe that modern Japan, despite how hawkish the conservative politicians may be is not the Imperial Japan, and no one wants to subjugate the Choson peoples anymore. There are other inexplicable reasons why nationalism is being fanned by present day politicians.

Concluding observations

From the brief analysis above, it transpires that ties between Asian nations are often hindered by memories of bitter history. Japan and South Korea fall into this trap. Though both nations are democracies, important trading partners and key allies of the US and face common adversaries, both carry mutual suspicions, which breed hatred. The role of Imperial Japan during its 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula does not go away from Korean memory easily. Anti-Japanese sentiment among the people is often fanned by governmental policy and statements by the political leaders. When greater threats such as from North Korea’s nuclear weapon program and China’s belligerence loom large, bilateral tensions between Japan and South Korea do not help the interests of Asian peace and stability.

That is unfortunate.

When the prime ministers of both Japan and South Korea attended separate ceremonies in their respective capitals, it appeared diplomatic freeze thawed as it was an important event. Unfortunately, this was a one-time occurrence. The stance of Japan that the issues of the past have been settled for are rejected by South Korea and this remains unchanged. South Korea after embraced democracy in the 1990s has not checked the rise of nationalist sentiment but allowed old disputes to be revived. The joint ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations are more on symbolism than any substantive means to improve strained ties. The next opportunity could be in August 2015 when Prime Minister Abe is expected to make his speech to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

That could set the tone for a possible summit meeting between Park and Abe later in 2015. The Christian Science Monitor aptly editorialized: “Healing wounds of the past will require humility on both sides to listen to each other’s concerns and to honor each other’s national identity. More can still be done to help the surviving “comfort women” and the two countries must agree on the history of that abuse. South Korea can also welcome Mr. Abe’s efforts to have Japan take on greater international responsibilities.”21

Can one now expect then a thaw in bilateral ties after years of a deepening freeze? The unexpected displays of mutual goodwill (not affection) demonstrated by Park and Abe could be signs of hope for better days. The change of attitudes in the two leaders was demonstrated when Park attended a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where she spoke leaving behind the burden of history.22 On his part, Prime Minister Abe attended a similar event at the South Korean embassy in Tokyo. Both the leaders are yet to hold a bilateral summit. While President Park has not loosened her stance on wartime history such as Comfort Women etc, conservative Prime Minister Abe has taken the position that it is best to bury the past that happened decades ago and look for a more forward-looking relationship. Critics are quick to see in such a position the code language that attempts to whitewash the worst excesses of Japanese militarism. Signs of change were visible when visiting foreign minister of South Korea Yun Byung-Se to Tokyo carried a message from President Park that stressed the need to begin a new era of cooperation by casting off the “heavy burden of history”. Prime Minister Abe has too underlined economic, cultural, and grassroots exchanges between the two countries as “invaluable assets”.23 Considering from all sides, it transpires that there are large number of issues where both have common interests and objectives and therefore it seems to be unnatural that the prolonged deep chill is allowed to continue any further as it would be counterproductive to both in the long run. In a further sign of thaw, South Korea agreed to cooperate with Japan’s request to get the Meiji-era industrial sites included on a UNESCO’s World Heritage list, in return for Tokyo’s support for its own UNESCO bid. Earlier Seoul had objected to Japan’s application as it felt the sites were built by Korean laborers forcibly taken to Japan during the 35 years of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.24 Many had died then.

The US shall be too happy at this turn of events as amicable relations between its two key Asian allies are conducive to Obama’s rebalance to Asia strategy and other foreign policy objectives in the region. This change in diplomatic temperature gives hopes for a long-awaited summit between Park and Abe. It is difficult to hazard a likely possible date for the same or if the détente will be long lasting, however. For President Park, solving the Comfort Women issue remains as the condition for holding summit talks with Abe. Earlier, the Obama-brokered meeting between Park and Abe in 2014 during the Nuclear Security summit had proved to be a non-starter. Given the conservative stance taken by Abe, it is unlikely that he will succumb to the demands made repeatedly by South Korea to repeat an official apology to former victims of Japanese militarism issued by his predecessors on previous war anniversaries. Instead, Abe is likely to repeat the statement in August that highlights Japan’s post-war commitment to peace. Will this assuage the feeling of hurt of Koreans? Unlikely. It is difficult to say if a conciliatory statement should Abe decides to make in August, shall satisfy South Korea. President Park may have expected to go soft on Japan as she probably expects that Abe would say the right thing in August. However, with the increasing bonhomie between China and South Korea, Abe would be unlikely to fall into a trap whereby he reconciles with South Korea without checking the new found South Korea-China camaraderie. Abe is aware of President Xi Jinping’s attempt to form a front along with South Korea against Japan when he visited South Korea in 2014. Willy-nilly, the China factor always makes space in another Asian country’s foreign policy calculus. The US would be happy to see Japan and South Korea work through their problems so that this relationship works as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea. But that remains a big ‘if’.

Even when the prospect for a first bilateral summit might look bright to some observers, the outstanding matters concerning history and territorial issues are unlikely to go away so soon. A single instance of summit talks is unlikely to dramatically resolve all outstanding issues. A series of dialogues are needed if both sides are keen to resolve outstanding challenges. The path for reconciliation seems rocky but not insurmountable.

Both Japan and South Korea need to rise above bilateral acrimony and address other larger issues confronting the region. Both need to demonstrate maturity and mutual respect. Both need to commonly address to the security issue of the region stemming from perpetual threat from North Korea and perceived threat from a belligerent China. These need to be given primacy in the policy priorities in both countries. Both President Park and Prime Minister Abe can leave a mark in history by accommodating each others’ perspectives by injecting an element of flexibility and could emerge as visionaries. Such an approach would be beyond narrow bilateral and could be for larger regional/global interests.

Dr. Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, is now New Delhi-based an Independent Researcher on Northeast Asia’s security/strategic issues, with focus on Japan and Koreas. E-mail: [email protected]

1. Mari Yamaguchi, “Not friends yet as Japan S Korea mark 50-year treaty”, 21 June 2015,
2. “Japan-S. Korea relations going nowhere amid immature rivalry”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 19 June 2015,
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See, Rajaram Panda, “Hiccups In Japan-South Korea Ties As Seoul Indicts Japanese Journalist – Analysis”, 16 October 2014,
6. “Japan-S. Korea relations going nowhere amid immature rivalry”, n.2.
7. “Abe to meet ROK foreign minister”, 20 June 2015,
8. “Abe to meet ROK foreign minister”, 20 June 2015,
9. “Japan, S. Korea should proceed toward future by surmounting history problems”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 22 June 2015,
10. “Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century”, 8 October 1998,
11. Shannon Teizzi, “Hope and History: Shinzo Abe’s speech to Congress”, The Diplomat, 30 April 2015, For Abe’s full speech, watch video in link:
12. “Joint Press Availability with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se”, 18 May 2015,
13. See, Haruki Wada, “The Comfort Women, the Asian Women’s Fund and the Digital Museum”, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, January 2008, Also see, “Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama “On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end”
(15 August 1995)” ,
14. See, Rajaram Panda, ““Comfort Women’ issue: A constant irritant in Japan-South Korea Relations”, 22 December 2011,
15. Mizuho Aoki, “Bad feelings dominate Japan-South Korea sentiment”, The Japan Times, 8 May 2013,
16. Quoted in ibid.
17. The 2nd Joint Japan-South Korea Public Opinion Poll (2014), 16 July 2014,
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. “President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the Republic of Korea”,
21. “Japan, South Korea cozy up”, Christian Science Monitor, editorial, 23 June 2015,
22. “Can we in turning point to Japan and Korea ’50 ceremony improve relations”, The Yomiuri Shimbun , 23 June 2015,
23. Justin McCurry, “Unburdening’? Japan and S. Korea see unexpected thaw in relations”, Christian Science Monitor, 26 June 2015,
24. See, Rajaram Panda, “New Historical Wounds mar Japan-South Korea Relations”, Centre for Asian Studies, Chennai, 5 June 2015,

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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